With elections less than a month away, many in Israel are concerned and even frightened over the likelihood that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be elected prime minister in his own right.
A year ago no one dreamed that Olmert would ever head the government. A March 2005 poll in Haaretz showed that Olmert, despite his high profile, was only the fourth most popular Likud candidate for prime minister among the general public, behind Ariel Sharon, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister. Olmert had a 13.3 percent popularity rating, and even that was due mainly to left-wing support. Among Likud voters, his own territory at the time, his popularity rating was a laughable 7.3 percent.
Unlike several of his predecessors who had heroic military careers and were strongly identified with national defense, Olmert lacks anything approaching an impressive military background. In recent years he’s increasingly sounded the trumpet of retreat, going so far as to tell a New York audience, “We are tired of fighting. We are tired of being courageous. We are tired of winning. We are tired of defeating our enemies.”
And then there’s the question of corruption – the elephant in the room so far in this campaign. “Since the beginning of the 1980′s,” Haaretz reporter Uri Blau wrote last week, “it is doubtful whether any elected representative has been entangled and investigated in so many affairs. So far, Olmert has eluded conviction in all of them.”
In his closest call with the law, Olmert was indicted in 1996 on two counts stemming from a 1989 Likud financial scandal that the Israeli media dubbed the “fictitious invoices affair.” Though Olmert was acquitted in September 1997, the presiding judge, Oded Mudrik, made it clear that while he was obligated to “examine the issue in terms of criminal responsibility,” he had misgivings about Olmert’s conduct, which he described as “quite outrageous.”
Blau dryly characterized Olmert as “a very forgiving politician” who over the years has made something of a habit of lending public support to convicted criminals:
When Likud activist Shlomi Oz was convicted of counterfeiting dollars, Olmert sent written character testimony on his behalf. When Yehoshua Halperin, the CEO of the Bank of North America, was slapped with an injunction forbidding him to leave the country, Olmert tried to get the injunction revoked. After businessman Shlomo Eisenberg was convicted of fraud, Olmert sent the judges a letter describing the convicted man’s contribution to the economy of Jerusalem and requesting that they take this into consideration. Olmert attended the mass rally outside the prison on the day former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri arrived there to begin serving his prison term. He also defended Omri Sharon, the prime minister’s son, on the eve of his conviction.
Aryeh Avneri, formerly a highly respected investigative reporter for Haaretz and a past president of Israel’s Press Club, has been following Olmert’s career for many years and in 1992 wrote a book (Hatevusa) that raised disturbing questions about Olmert’s cnnection to organized crime and corrupt legislators.
Avneri recently stated on Israel’s news website NFC that he’s decided to write a series of articles about Olmert for the website because the Israeli media are in effect covering up for the Kadima leader.
“The purpose of these articles,” wrote Avneri, “is to expose to the public one of the most corrupted and dangerous politicians in the county. This man is now trying to disguise himself, with the help of the media, as a respectable and qualitative statesman, thereby deceiving the public.”
Last week I had a conversation with Yossi Ben-Aharon, formerly the director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office under Yitzhak Shamir. When I mentioned that it looked like Olmert would indeed be Israel’s next prime minister, he responded, “Oh no, please don’t say that.”
Ben Aharon’s disdain for Olmert was evident in every word he spoke. “I never had any clashes with him,” he said, “but am familiar with the way he operated. He’s a manipulator and cunning.
“I would hear him speak in cabinet discussions. I never heard anything that could be described as wise, or any depth in his presentations. But he has a flowery presentation. His best expertise is in his capacity to extract contributions from rich people. He knows how to rub shoulders with the wealthy and to get them to open their checkbooks and sign checks. That is his forte.”
Ben Aharon said he was not surprised by Olmert’s sudden shift from right-wing Likud activist opposing territorial compromise to someone who spearheaded the Gaza withdrawal and speaks of future withdrawals from Judea and Samaria. Appearances to the contrary, Olmert was never really a man of the Right, said Ben Aharon.
“Olmert never came off as a right-winger, in the sense that, say, Uzi Landau or Benny Begin did. You never heard him quote Jabotinsky, despite the fact that he grew up in a Betar family. As a manipulator he knew where the wind was blowing”
Ben Aharon’s assessment is buttressed by Shmuel Tamir, who was active in the Herut Party and later in the Free Center and Dash parties and served as a minister of justice in the first Begin government (1977-1980). Olmert was a law student of his and together they formed the Free Center party before Olmert defected to a different party in a move Tamir described as a “stab in the back” They remained bitter enemies until the end. Tamir died of cancer in 1987, but before his death he published his memoirs, Ben Haaretz Hazot.”
Tamir wrote the following:
The way Olmert proved to be in this episode (defecting to another party) reminded me of a meeting I had with him back in the days when we still had good relations. Olmert’s father was the secretary-general of the Free Center party. He was hard to deal with but was honest, diligent and very experienced. People were hesitant to appoint him as secretary-general because they knew he was hard to work with. Indeed it turned out that it was impossible to work with him. There was always friction with him and I had to be the one to straighten matters out. Although I respected him I realized that he is not capable of working with others. One morning after I met with him in the Knesset, Ehud walked into my room. I sighed deeply and said: “Your father, may he be well, is not an easy person to deal with.”
His response stunned me. “Shmuel [Olmert said], if you want to get rid of him I’ll arrange it within 24 hours.” I said: I am not suggesting to get rid of him. I just think that it’s hard to deal with him, maybe you can persuade him to become more flexible. “OK,” said Ehud Olmert, “as you wish, but if you want that he leave his job I’ll arrange it within 24 hours.” I was appalled. This aspect of his personality gave me the chills and a hard feeling.
Olmert’s questionable olitical maneuverings go back decades. On December 28, 1976, Olmert, then an MK, stated from the Knesset podium, “I have received information that the Israel Police believe they have sufficient material to launch a criminal investigation against Housing Minister Avraham Ofer.” Less than a week later, Ofer shot himself in his car on a Tel Aviv beach. After his suicide, the investigation was shelved.
Haaretz reported last week that Ofer’s son Dan, an attorney, in his first public statement on the matter, said: “I accuse Ehud Olmert. In the days preceding the suicide of my father, of blessed memory, Olmert used cheap demagoguery in the Knesset and did a character assassination of my father, an act of McCarthyism. He sought cheap publicity at the expense of my father’s blood.”
American-born writer Naomi Ragen has lived in Jerusalem since 1971. A bestselling novelist and playwright, she was quoted as saying of Olmert, “He is a disaster, a sleazy politician with no vision.”
I called to verify whether what she said was based on personal dealings with Olmert or from what she’d observed of him in the media. She told me that prior to the Gaza disengagement she had been working as an editor at a Christian radio station called Front Page Jerusalem:
We were trying to explain to the Christian public why there was going to be a disengagement and Ehud Olmert was interviewed about it. I sat across the desk from him and listened to him explain why the disengagement was a wonderful thing. But when I walked out of that meeting I realized that there was no reason for the disengagement, that everything he said was absolute nonsense and it was just totally a political move that had no basis in reality for anything positive to come out of it. That is when I realized that all of these steps that had been taken were simply based on nothing.
But besides that meeting with him I have been living in Jerusalem for many years and have seen what happened to the city during Olmert’s tenure as mayor. The city was dirtier, poorer, the most productive citizens left and when it was convenient for him he walked out and got a better job. So all of his talk about standing tough and “we’re not going to give in” and “Jerusalem will never be divided” all of a sudden turned into “since we don’t have a partner for peace let’s withdraw unilaterally because that will teach them a lesson.” That makes no sense whatsoever. He failed terribly as a mayor and if he becomes prime minister it will be an unmitigated disaster.
When Olmert took over as mayor of Jerusalem the municipal deficit stood at NIS 65 million, or 7 percent of the municipality’s budget at the time. The accumulated deficit at the end of his first term, in 1998, had ballooned to NIS 501 million. In 2003 Olmert resigned as mayor and left behind a deficit of NIS 534 million.
At last week’s Likud gathering convened by party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, a letter from Knesset Speaker Reuven “Ruby” Rivlin was read aloud: “Are we facing retreats, concessions, collapse and disengagement from all the values on which we have been raised and educated? Or will we succeed in awakening the public and uncovering the true face of Olmert?”
“Olmert,” Rivlin continued, “is a man who has proven that everything is justified in order to attain power. He is a man ‘who has no God,’ a man who has left our camp many times and then returned whenever the regime fell and provided him with new opportunities. We must remind the public how dangerous it would be to abandon the leadership of the country to his hands.”
“In the few weeks in which he has been in power,” Rivlin wrote about Olmert, “he has already managed to crumble… He disseminates promises and illusions. Can a person like that be believed?”
Even Israel’s popular Yediot Aharonot newspaper (which according to journalist Yoav Yitzchak is one of the media outlets coveing up for Olmert) carried an article a few weeks ago asking what kind of prime minister Olmert would be, considering that he’s surrounded by a wife and children who lean to the extreme Left.
Olmert’s wife is a member of Women in Black, a group that habitually sides with Arabs against Jews; one of his sons is a deserter from the IDF and a member of the extreme leftist group Yesh Gvul; another son never served in the Israeli army and resides abroad; one daughter is an outspoken lesbian and member of Machsom Watch, a group whose members stand near checkpoints to interfere with the work of Israeli soldiers trying to prevent terrorists from entering Israel; and another daughter is a leftist as well.
As to how Olmert and his people feel about the allegations of corruption that have been floating around under the mainstream media’s radar, Attilia Somfalvi, a political commentator for Yediot Aharonot’s Ynet.com website, provided the answer last week.
Following the news that an investigation had been launched into a 1999 sale and lease-back of Olmert’s Jerusalem house, which allegedly was done on financial terms very favorable to Olmert in what would amount to an illegal campaign contribution and/or bribe, Somfalvi wrote a column (“Corruption? Who Cares?”) that began:
“There was hearty laughter last night at the home of one senior Kadima Party aide, a man very close to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. ‘Worried?’ he laughed. ‘Why should I be worried? After the campaign we ran for Arik Sharon during the Greek Island Affair, and after the whole thing with Omri Sharon and the rest of the Sharon family scandals, do you really think I’m going to get all worked up over Ehud Olmert and a few rent shenanigans? Do me a favor. Apart from a few newspaper editors who think Kadima is too strong, these scandals don’t interest anyone.’ “
But Israeli voters, according to Somfalvi, aren’t interested in any of this. “They snore away, squeeze open an eye to look at one more ‘exclusive’ report about this-or-another scandal, and they go back to sleep. It’s a lot more comfortable to pass the winter without thinking about it.”
Somfalvi is one of the few voices in the Israeli media sounding the alarm over Olmert’s history of lax ethics, opportunism, and conflicts of interest. To most of the editors, reporters and pundits who comprise Israel’s thoroughly leftist media culture, Olmert is a dream come true – a political leader who, whatever his past leanings, is now substantively and demonstrably a man of the Left despite being viewed by most voters as a moderate. No wonder they prefer to let the public slumber on.
Avraham Shmuel Lewin is the Israel correspondent of The Jewish Press.